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Gonzaga Basketball

Dave Boling: In the earliest days of Gonzaga’s brush with the Big Dance, the message was simple – ‘Get the round thing to the bald thing’

By Dave Boling For The Spokesman-Review

The round thing: A basketball.

The bald thing: John Rillie.

The NCAA Tournament: A mythical place that generations of Gonzaga basketball players had heard of but never actually experienced.

That’s the setup for a story of Gonzaga men’s basketball that goes back to when NCAA berths were not an annual thing, they were a never thing. Travel back to March 1995 for the story of an unlikely hero who helped the Zags take their first baby steps toward their ultimate destination.

That season was wildly streaky as the Bulldogs got off to an 11-1 start before absorbing six consecutive West Coast Conference losses. About midway, though, their talents meshed to finish fourth in the league at 7-7.

Against odds, they rolled to three wins in the conference tournament to earn the automatic bid to the NCAAs. The lowly 14th seed didn’t matter, and the match against national No. 10 Maryland in Salt Lake City didn’t really matter, either, because they finally had been invited.

Coach Dan Fitzgerald, showman, comedian, curmudgeon, colorful story-weaver, was asked how he managed to get his team rolling late in the season and earn the school’s first NCAA trip.

“Coaching,” he said in a mocking tone.

Oh, really?

“I kept telling them: ‘Get the round thing to the bald thing.’ ”

Rillie wasn’t just bald; his freshly shaved head was incandescent. It may have given off heat in addition to light, as Rillie went on a shooting streak that even the gifted contemporary Zags would envy. He still holds the GU record for career 3-point shooting percentage: 43.9.

A story is told that Rillie rarely took practice shots before game, mostly sitting on the bench to chill before tipoff. Before the first tournament game, a ball rolled to where he was seated. Rillie gathered it up and arced it into the hoop. While remaining seated.

Heat check? Yeah, Rillie’s ready to go.

He took 28 3-pointers in those three games, sinking 20 (71.4 ), and also netted 22 of 24 free throws (91.4% ) to average 32 points a game and win the tournament MVP honors.

That he was in a position to play that game, on that team, in this country, on a foreign hemisphere stands as a testament to the power of a young man’s dreams.

And in that way, he reflected the deep, internal drive of many Zag players in the pre-NCAA tourney era.

Regarding the grateful attitude of his overlooked players, Fitzgerald once said: “They are guys who are kneeling down every night saying, ‘Thank you, Lord, for giving me a chance to play Division I.’ ”

None was more grateful than Rillie, and none had to travel a more difficult path, which makes his contributions as a pioneer into uncharted territory even more remarkable.

Rillie’s passion for basketball became all-consuming as he grew up in Toowoomba, Australia. To reach his goal of playing on an American college team, he knew he’d have to pay his way, which he calculated would require a stake of $20,000.

For two and a half years, he worked a series of menial jobs, at a grocery store, a hamburger joint, and in an unimaginably gory meat-processing plant. Cutting bacon. No social life, no spending, just burgers and basketball and pork products.

His parsimony funded a year at Tacoma Community College, and in one season he drew interest from Gonzaga. He loved everything about the program, especially Fitzgerald, the man willing to take a chance on him.

International players were more of an oddity at that time, and Rillie arrived as a stringy 6-foot-5, 175 pounds. He was an absolute deadeye sharpshooter but also a creative passer and had surprising bounce to his game. A beat reporter at the time surely strained a muscle reaching for a nickname: Crocodile Dunk-dee.

What Rillie brought in greatest abundance was dedication.

“We played the way we practiced,” said Rillie, 50, associate head coach of the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos. “There was no science to the drills we did. It was ‘let’s see who’s tough and who wants to compete and who wants to win.’ Everything was (built) around toughness. We had a group that loved it and embraced (Fitz’s) personality.”

At the start of Christmas break his junior year, he was called into Fitzgerald’s office. “I was the only one unable to go home at the holidays and he was worried about me,” Rillie recalled. Fitzgerald handed him 25 one-dollar Taco Time vouchers. He says, ‘this should help you get through Christmas.’ That was just so Fitz!”

The ’94 Zags, Rillie’s junior season, hinted at what was building at GU. With a core of four senior starters and Rillie, the Zags won the WCC but lost in the conference tournament. They ended up scoring an NIT road upset at Stanford.

But with four new starters, the ’95 Zags struggled to find their identity. “We were the Bad News Bears, a ragtag group that finally really clicked at the end,” Rillie said.

Asked his most vivid memories of his record-setting WCC Tournament, Rillie said it was the terrible restaurant Fitzgerald took them to for pregame meals all three nights. Rillie could be excused for not recalling much about the games because he, obviously, was unconscious. Everything he put up went in and rarely even touched the rim.

“As we got closer and closer, it was one of those things you realize, Gonzaga had never been to the NCAAs, and you go to bed every night thinking, man, it would be great if I was a part of the first team to be able to do that.”

The Maryland game was predictable. “A little bit of David and Goliath,” Rillie said. For the first time in his career, he was guarded by a 6-8, athletic defender, which cooled him off to 3 for 11 behind the arc. Still, he finished with 11 points (two more than Terp All-American center Joe Smith had) with eight assists and seven rebounds.

It wasn’t the end of his playing career, though. Rillie went home and starred in the Australian pro league (NBL), and represented Australia in the 2004 Olympics in Greece. He also went with the national team to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as a coach.

He was drawn back to American basketball and has served as an assistant since 2011 at Boise State and now UCSB.

An NCAA probation after Rillie’s departure complicated Fitzgerald’s legacy at GU. But he left such a positive imprint on so many players, particularly Rillie.

“Truly, Fitz is the reason I wanted to come back and coach,” Rillie said. “It may be corny, but every day at Gonzaga we would start out by stretching in a circle. It wasn’t really about stretching, it was Fitz’s time to come around and talk to everybody. It felt so much like he was investing in what you were doing in your life. That left a huge impression with me.”

Like most of the nation of basketball fans, Rillie is astonished what coach Mark Few has accomplished with the GU program. Few was a young second assistant when Rillie played.

“The thing I always tell people is that he always had a vision for Gonzaga basketball; he truly had a vision of this and then made it happen,” Rillie said.

Twenty-seven years and one day after Rillie and the 1995 Zags first appeared in the NCAAs, Gonzaga enters this year’s tournament as the top overall seed in its 23rd consecutive appearance.

It’s as improbable a development as a skinny kid working in an Aussie slaughterhouse coming to a small school in Spokane and leading the team on its first steps toward national recognition.

Columnist Dave Boling can be contacted at daveboling1@gmail.com.